Rolling Stone magazine has updated the “note to readers” that it posted Friday in light of a Washington Post report casting doubts on its article “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which told the horrific story of a University of Virginia freshman named Jackie suffering a seven-man gang rape in 2012 at the prestigious Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. “We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening,” reads the last line of the note.
The new version makes one significant deletion. Gone is this line: “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.” That sentiment aligned with an ugly history of blaming rape victims for their trauma and for shaming them when their stories occasionally don’t pan out. Now, the key line reads, “These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.”
That’s not only more sensitive, but more accurate as well. The change in tone appears consistent with a tweet issued by Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana on Friday:
6/ That failure is on us – not on her.
— Will Dana (@wdana) December 5, 2014
Now that Rolling Stone is coming around to accepting blame, the question has become how much of it must come its way. A lot, as it turns out.
To recap the holes identified by The Post on Friday:
• Some of Jackie’s close friends have come to doubt her account, whereas Erdely said after the story was published that the friends’ accounts were “consistent” with her story. Some of those doubts were seeded before Rolling Stone descended on the University of Virginia. For instance, Jackie initially told then-U-Va. senior Emily Renda that she was attacked by five men, later changing the number to seven. “I don’t even know what I believe at this point,” Renda told The Post. Rolling Stone told the Erik Wemple Blog that Erdely had interviewed “dozens” of Jackie’s friends.
• Whereas Rolling Stone reported that Jackie had emerged bloodied and battered from the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house amid a party on Sept. 28, 2012, The Post reported conflicting accounts from friends that arrived to help her. One of them told the paper that Jackie “did not appear physically injured at the time but was visibly shaken and told him and two other friends that she had been at a fraternity party and had been forced to have oral sex with a group of men” — a different scenario, though still horrible, from the gang rape alleged in Rolling Stone.
• Phi Kappa Psi says it didn’t hold “a date function or social event” on the night in question.
• Rolling Stone reported that Jackie had met “Drew,” the Phi Kappa Psi brother who led her into the gang rape, as they worked as lifeguards at the university pool. The fraternity claims that no member worked at the pool in 2012.
• One of the attackers identified by Jackie to friends “was actually the name of a student who belongs to a different fraternity, and no one by that name has been a member of Phi Kappa Psi.” That man told The Post that “he never met Jackie in person and never took her out on a date. He also said he was not a member of Phi Kappa Psi.”
The central confession of the Rolling Stone “note to readers” reflects heinous wrongdoing. At the request of Jackie, the magazine refrained from contacting the accused in this incident. “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story,” reads the note, “we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.” The idea that the magazine was honoring a victim’s request conflicts with what a Rolling Stone editor told The Post’s Paul Farhi: “We did not talk to them. We could not reach them,” said Sean Woods of Rolling Stone.
So did the magazine lie about its reporting efforts? Have some sympathy here: What would you do if forced to choose between admitting that you agreed with a source not to contact other sources and admitting that your publication lacked the sophistication to track down modern day college students with presumably large digital footprints?
In any case, Rolling Stone now acknowledges that not checking with the other side was a mistake, though the abandonment of common sense and journalism merely starts with this critical omission. As the story explains, Jackie has declined to file a complaint about the incident, a documentary problem that places ever more emphasis on multilateral sourcing: The accused assailants, friends, witnesses — anyone who could support or knock down the account.
Right smack in the middle of the Rolling Story are three people who could help. Here, we’ll paste in the excerpt from “A Rape on Campus” that introduces them:
Disoriented, Jackie burst out a side door, realized she was lost, and dialed a friend, screaming, “Something bad happened. I need you to come and find me!” Minutes later, her three best friends on campus – two boys and a girl (whose names are changed) – arrived to find Jackie on a nearby street corner, shaking. “What did they do to you? What did they make you do?” Jackie recalls her friend Randall demanding. Jackie shook her head and began to cry. The group looked at one another in a panic. They all knew about Jackie’s date; the Phi Kappa Psi house loomed behind them. “We have to get her to the hospital,” Randall said.
Their other two friends, however, weren’t convinced. “Is that such a good idea?” she recalls Cindy asking. “Her reputation will be shot for the next four years.” Andy seconded the opinion, adding that since he and Randall both planned to rush fraternities, they ought to think this through. The three friends launched into a heated discussion about the social price of reporting Jackie’s rape, while Jackie stood beside them, mute in her bloody dress, wishing only to go back to her dorm room and fall into a deep, forgetful sleep. Detached, Jackie listened as Cindy prevailed over the group: “She’s gonna be the girl who cried ‘rape,’ and we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again.”
Did Rolling Stone ever interview those people or other key folks? Read the lines above, and you’ll hear their voices — filtered through Jackie. “Randall,” notes Erdely in the story, turned down an interview request on account of his “loyalty to his own frat” — yet another little detail in “A Rape on Campus” that stinks of implausibility.
On the topic of the reachability of these friends, Rolling Stone commits perhaps the most self-damaging parenthetical in the history of journalistic self-assessment. It comes from the magazine’s “note to readers”: “A friend of Jackie’s (who we were told would not speak to Rolling Stone) told the Washington Post that he found Jackie that night a mile from the school’s fraternities.” Bold text added to highlight an un-get-pastable problem: Rolling Stone is in possession of a gang-rape allegation that includes a broken glass table, seven assailants and penetration with a bottle. Not only does it not have an official complaint, it has agreed not to contact the accused AND it has apparently accepted the affirmation of some interested party that a pivotal source isn’t really up for an interview.
Where is that an acceptable excuse?
The Erik Wemple Blog has asked Rolling Stone whether the parenthetical means that the magazine didn’t even try to find this person and whether it’s standard practice to let others speak for a source’s willingness to cooperate. (It’s possible that it refers only to Rolling Stone’s efforts to reach this person after “A Rape on Campus” was published). Also: Who was it that told the magazine that the friend wouldn’t talk?
Rolling Stone spokeswoman Melissa Bruno responds, “We decline to comment further at this time.”
In a follow-up to its Friday piece, The Post has some insight on Rolling Stone’s approach to these friends. Or lack thereof. The person identified in the Rolling Stone story as “Cindy” told the newspaper that Erdely’s version of events was “completely false.” That’s less condemnatory of Rolling Stone than “Cindy’s” contention that the magazine neither contacted nor interviewed her. Furthermore, “Andy” told The Post that he “never spoke to a Rolling Stone reporter,” as reported on Friday.
Thus far, assessments of the damage done by Erdely’s piece have focused on how it distracts from the cause of stomping out sexual assault at the University of Virginia and on other campuses. And indeed it does. But this widely distributed magazine also managed to slander an entire group of people via its depiction of “Cindy,” “Andy” and “Randall.” The way Erdely tells it, the trio arrives to assist Jackie within minutes of her calling in the wee hours of the morning, yet once they get there, they’re somehow consumed with superficialities. The blast from Erdely is so searing as to merit repetition:
The three friends launched into a heated discussion about the social price of reporting Jackie’s rape, while Jackie stood beside them, mute in her bloody dress, wishing only to go back to her dorm room and fall into a deep, forgetful sleep. Detached, Jackie listened as Cindy prevailed over the group: “She’s gonna be the girl who cried ‘rape,’ and we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again.”
“Cindy” told The Post that “there was never any discussion among Jackie and the group involving how their reputations or social status might be affected by seeking help.” Rolling Stone offered its apology to “anyone who was affected by the story,” and that means every student, alumna and alumnus.
Again: Fire the Rolling Stone editors who worked on this story.
A final note: The Rolling Stone note pledges that it will “continue to investigate the events of that evening.” Sorry, but the time to do that was before publishing.